The Finger and The Moon

There is an old Christian phrase-Crux medicina mundi-the Cross, the medicine of the world-a phrase which is rather remarkable in that it suggests that religion is a medicine rather than a diet. The difference is, of course, that medicine is something to be taken occasionally-like penicillin-whereas a diet is regular food. Perhaps this analogy cannot be pressed too far, since there are medicines like insulin which some people have to take all the time.

But there is a point to the analogy-a point expressed in another Latin saying, not at all Christian, since its author was Lucretius: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (Too much religion is apt to encourage evil). I am not thinking so much of the exploitation of the poor by a corrupt priesthood, or of the obvious evils of zealotry and fanaticism. I am thinking, rather, of the old Buddhist metaphor that doctrine is like a raft for crossing a river. When you have reached the opposite shore, you do not carry the raft on your back, but leave it behind.

There is something here which applies not only to the mere handful of people who might be said to have reached the opposite shore, but to most of us. To carry out the metaphor a little: if you are going to cross the river, you must make haste, for if you dally on the raft, the current will carry you downstream, and out to the ocean-and then you will be stuck on the raft forever. And it is so easy to get stuck-on the raft, on religion, on psychotherapy, on philosophy. To use another Buddhist simile: The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon.

Too many of us, I fear, watch the pointing finger of religion for comfort, instead of looking where it points.

Now it seems to me that what the finger of religion points at is something not at all religious. Religion, with all its apparatus of ideas and practices, is altogether a pointing-and it does not point at itself. It doesn’t point at God, either, for the notion of God is part and parcel of religion. I might say that what religion points at is reality, except that this merely puts a philosophical notion in place of a religious one. And I can think of a dozen other substitutes for God or reality. I could say that it points at one’s true Self, at the eternal Now, at the nonverbal world, at the infinite and ineffable-but really none of this is very helpful. It’s just putting one finger in place of another.

When Joshu asked his teacher Nansen, “What is the Tao, the Way?” Nansen replied, “Your everyday mind is the Tao.”

But this doesn’t help either, for as soon as I try to understand what is meant by my everyday mind, and then try to latch on to it, I am just sucking another finger. But why does this difficulty arise? If someone actually points his finger at the moon, I have no difficulty in turning and looking at the moon. But the thing at which these religious and philosophical fingers are pointing seems to be invisible, in that when I turn to look there is nothing there, and I am forced to go back to the finger to see whether I understood its direction correctly. And sure enough, I find time and time again that I made no mistake about its direction-but for all this I simply cannot see what it’s pointing at.

All this is equally exasperating for the person who is doing the pointing, for he wants to show me something which, to him, is so obvious that one would think any fool could see it. He must feel as we all feel when trying to explain to a thickheaded child that two times zero is zero and not two. And there is something even more exasperating than this. I am sure that many of you may, for a fleeting moment, have had one clear glimpse of what the finger was pointing at-a glimpse in which you shared the pointer’s astonishment that you had never seen it before, in which you saw the whole thing so plainly that you know you could never forget it-and then you lost it.

If I may put it in a way which is horribly cumbersome and inadequate, that fleeting glimpse is the perception that, suddenly, some very ordinary moment of your ordinary everyday life, lived by your very ordinary self, just as it is and just as you are-that this immediate here-and-now is perfect and self-sufficient beyond any possibility of description. You know that there is nothing to desire or seek for-that no techniques, no spiritual apparatus of belief or discipline is necessary, no system of philosophy or religion. The goal is here. It is this present experience, just as it is. That, obviously, is what the finger was pointing at. But the next moment, as you look again, it is gone, though the finger still points right at it.

However, this irritatingly elusive quality of the vision to which the finger points has an extremely simple explanation, an explanation which has to do with what I said at the beginning about getting rid of the raft when you have crossed the river, about taking religion as a medicine but not as a diet. For purposes of understanding the point, we must take the raft as representing the ideas or words or other symbols whereby a religion or a philosophy expresses itself, whereby it points at the moon of reality. As soon as you have understood the words in their plain and straightforward sense, you have already used the raft. You have reached the opposite bank of the river. All that remains now is to do what the words say-to drop the raft and go walking on the dry land. And to do this, you MUST drop the raft.

In other words, you cannot, at this stage, think about religion and practice it at the same time. To see the moon, you must forget the pointing finger, and simply look at the moon.

This is why all the great Oriental philosophies begin with the practice of concentration, that is of attentive looking. It is as if to say, “If you want to know what reality is, you must look directly at it and see for yourself. But this needs a certain kind of concentration, because reality is not symbols, it is not words and thoughts, it is not reflections and fantasies. Therefore to see it clearly, you mind must be free from wandering words and from the floating fantasies of memory.”

Well, I think this is enough medicine for tonight. So let’s put the bottle away, and go out and look at the moon.

Alan Watts

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